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NEA News

Solidarity Matters More Than Ever

The 2023 NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice proved—once again—to be a powerful space for educators and allies to build community, demonstrate the union’s power to demand change, and flip the script on extremist politicians who ban books and restrict teaching the truth about our history.
Attendees at the Conference on Racial and Social Justice greet each other in Orlando, Florida Moses Mitchell Photography
Published: July 2, 2023

Key Takeaways

  1. Educators and allies reaffirm their commitment to mobilize their communities to protect the freedom to learn and the freedom to be their authentic selves.
  2. Keynote speakers share their work and commitment toward a better future for all.
  3. Join NEA on actions that support and protect the freedoms for all students!

Hundreds of educators across the country came together at this year’s NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice (CRSJ), in Orlando, and made one of many things clear: They’re leveling up their activism to continue to protect the freedoms that make a better future possible for everyone! And holding the conference in Orlando was an act of resistance against the policies being rammed through by an extremist governor and state legislature.

CRSJ conference attendees sit around a display of colored squares and prepare for the Blanket Exercise
Educators participate in the Kairos Blanket Healing Exercise, a unique, participatory history lesson that fosters truth, understanding, respect, and reconciliation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Credit: Moses Mitchell Photography

The three-day conference (June 29 – July 1) brought together educators, creative activists, organizers, and other leaders to further develop their activism and hone their skills to help advance racial and social justice for all students in public schools. This year’s theme was “Joy, Justice, Excellence: The Strength of Educators. The Brilliance of Students. The Power of Community.”

While educators work to deliver students an accurate and honest education through a diverse and unifying lens, some politicians continue to divide communities to advance their own political gain. They want to censor the lessons taught in classrooms, deny certain students resources, and write the most marginalized people—people who look like many of our students—out of history books.

And given the recent U.S Supreme Court rollbacks on affirmative action and LGBTQ+ rights, the time to come together to demand change is now.

“When our young people are under attack and under siege, it's our responsibility as adults to form a barrier to protect them ... I know from personal experience what a difference it can make to have someone in your corner fighting for you.”

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN

“History instructs us that whenever there is progress, we will be challenged by a backslide in our journey toward freedom—and each generation bears the responsibility of using that challenge to help propel us forward,” said NEA President Becky Pringle, reassuring conference goers, “NEA: We are not done yet.”

And conference sessions were developed with that goal of moving the work around social and racial justice forward. Sessions included:

  • Standing against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
  • How to respond to the attacks on equity and honest education.
  • Techniques to lead anti-racism engagements in schools and communities.
  • The power of AAPI voices.
  • The experiences of undocumented immigrants, among other topics.
Andre Mathis

“The workshops we’re having are so important, particularly with everything going on in the country. Coming together reminds us our work doesn’t stop. We may be defeated but we’re not giving up. We’ll continue to advocate and bring awareness of racial and social justice,” said Andre Mathis, a reader services reserves and student coordinator at Binghamton University in New York, as well as an NEA member. This was his first CRSJ conference. 

Keynote speakers engage and inspire hope for a better world

Conference highlights included speakers Glenn Harris, president of the new Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines; Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN; and Frank Waln, an award winning Sicangu Lakota hip hop artist and music producer from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

The trio did not disappoint.

Harris brings 25 years of experience working on issues of race and social justice and has long spoken about the power of coming together to create the world we all deserve, one that embraces our collective history and based on a just, multi-racial democracy.

How to get here? “Community organizing is essential to the world we are trying to build,” said Glenn during his remarks.

And it’s going to take the adults in the room to protect students from the brazen attacks by certain politicians, said Willingham-Jaggers. Their work through GLSEN is rooted in the belief that education can and should be an experience that is safe, affirming and liberating—a goal that can be achieved only when racial, gender, and disability justice is built into our education system.

"When our young people are under attack and under siege, it's our responsibility as adults to form a barrier to protect them ... I know from personal experience what a difference it can make to have someone in your corner fighting for you.”

“When we’re talking about collective action and collective moment it’s about standing in solidarity. When we act together, we win.”

Winter Marshall-Allen, Alaska educator and conference attendee

Their message was not lost on Winter Marshall-Allen, an educator from Homer, Alaska.

Two CRSJ conference attendees look at the display of banned or challenged books
Conference attendees, including Winter Marshall-Allen (left), peruse the display of banned and challenged books.

“Melanie Willingham-Jaggers was absolutely fabulous and real,” said Marshall-Allen. “If we’re really going to do this work, it means putting our bodies in front of those who are causing harm. When we’re talking about collective action and collective moment it’s about standing in solidarity. When we act together, we win.”

Waln, who travels the world telling his story through performance and leads workshops that focus on self-empowerment and expression of truth, often speaks to native history and the erasure of it. He also uses his platform to elevate positive representation of his indigenous community—something that was missing when he was coming of age.

Waln closed out the conference with a riveting speech and performance. His message: “We don’t get to choose our past, but we get to choose how we move forward. We get to choose how we work together to create a better future.”

And by coming together to create a better world for all, educators and allies are demanding change.

“We’ve spoken up at board meetings and built multi-racial movements to create the schools and the school communities that will meet the needs of our students and give them the freedom to learn and be themselves,” Pringle said. “We can motivate each other, build community, and strategize about how we will demonstrate our power to give our schools and school communities the resources they need so that every child and every student can thrive.”

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Take Action with NEA

In his 1972 book, No Name in the Street, James Baldwin penned the following words: “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” And it is why NEA continues to engage and mobilize educators and activists alike in the effort for racial and social justice in public schools, on college campuses, and in the communities these institutions serve.

To join NEA’s community of activists, visit NEA EdJustice. Here you’ll find resources to help advocate for the rights of students and educators like you, as well as ways to take actions on issues impacting our communities.

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Education Justice

Visit NEA EdJustice to find ways you can take action and fight for racial, social, and economic justice in public education.

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.